Have you ever stood, gazed out to sea, and contemplated what lies beyond the horizon? I have a theory about the differences between people who live inland and those who live by the sea. It’s not based on any hard data, simply my own experiences of island living combined with a general feel from travels around rural areas in Europe.
It is that people in coastal areas are less wary of strangers, these days at least when ‘strangers’ are unlikely to be pirates or slavers. That’s not just any coastal areas though, it’s areas with a tradition of trade, of sea travel and exploration. For example, I found the people of Tenerife to be extremely welcoming of strangers. Some may scoff at that notion and say that’s just because they’re used to hordes of tourists. But I’m not talking about the tourist areas. In fact, I find some to be the least friendly parts of Tenerife. No, I’m talking about more traditional areas; the places where the Canarios live. One of the first times I was aware of this was many years ago in a remote hamlet in the northern hills; a place so out of the way I have never once seen it mentioned in a travel article even though it is in one of the most beautiful spots on the island. There are no streets in this hamlet; houses are linked by rocky goat trails.
When we stumbled across it, we had a wander through the quaint ‘main street,’ passing an old woman. When we drew level, she glanced in our direction just long enough to smile a friendly ‘buenos días.’ It was nothing, a little gesture, but to me it was typical of the friendliness of an island whose touristic logo was Tenerife Amable.
My rationale is that you can’t really be a stranger on Tenerife as every person who lives there is an incomer or descended from incomers, products of the potpourri of nationalities who settled on the island from the 15th century onward. For many years, Tenerife and the Canary Islands were at the crossroads of the world. The islanders are no strangers to strangers passing through.
In general, I’ve found people most places on our travels to be friendly, so long as you treat their homes with respect. But I’ve sensed more of an initial aloofness in some inland areas that aren’t on trading routes. In Portugal, with its unsurpassed history of exploration and discovery, coastal areas have been used to centuries of comings and goings by foreigners. But way inland, in the hills, we’ve had women hanging out of windows, watching us with open curiosity as we followed off the beaten track routes. The pandemic highlighted these differences. In Setúbal, on the coast, nobody treated us any differently than usual. A few kilometres inland, when walking in the fields close to where we lived, some locals turned and fled at our approach.
What prompted this musing was a passage in a book that triggered a memory of growing up and standing looking across the sea, wondering about the world that lay beyond. That memory made me contemplate how many people throughout time have stood on shorelines all over the world staring at the horizon, or even the land that lay on the other side of a wide stretch of sea, their curiosity aroused by who and what they might find there. There’s something about looking out to sea that inflames the imagination, which calls to certain people, which motivates them to explore. Does the same apply to people who live in hills and valleys? I really don’t know.
We now live in a rural inland setting. The view from our dining room window is a glorious one; it is hypnotic. We are transfixed by it at regular points throughout the day; of the rutting rams, the playful gallops of horses, pheasants and buzzards patrolling the fields, the hot air balloons that make cameo appearances. But I don’t find myself thinking about what lies beyond the hill on the opposite side of the valley. This is more of an enclosed world, whereas looking out to sea is closer to gazing into the seemingly endless expanse of the night sky. Gazing, curious about what lies out there.